Reuters reports that according to a senior US official, talks on containing Iran’s nuclear program have made substantial progress in the past weeks. Meanwhile the White House braced for an onslaught of criticism next week from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The anonymous official told reporters that many hurdles remain to reaching an agreement which would restrain the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions. Despite his optimism, the official said that that he did not expect a deal to be reached next week.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are set to meet in Switzerland next week when Netanyahu is expected to deliver a critique of the negotiations in a speech to US Congress. US Republicans have similarly criticized the talks with Iran.
The US official said that critics needed to provide an alternative to the current diplomatic efforts rather than simply shoot down the talks.
"Frankly, I think the challenge is for those who are critics of this agreement, including Prime minister Netanyahu, to lay out why alternative approaches would work better," said the US official.
Netanyahu's planned visit two weeks before an Israeli election has caused anxiety in Washington and Jerusalem.
White House officials have not been quiet in expressing their disappointment with Congressional republicans such as John Boehner, Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who arranged for Netanyahu to speak before Congress without consulting the White House.
In making the case for an agreement, the US official described what he called four US "bottom lines."
These included preventing Iran from producing weapons-grade plutonium at the Arak heavy-water reactor currently under construction, in addition to forbidding the enrichment of uranium at Fordow, an underground facility which Tehran kept secret until Western officials revealed it in 2009.
They also include restricting uranium enrichment at Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz and furthermore requiring Iran to agree to an inspection regime designed to ensure that Tehran does not establish new covert nuclear facilities.
"Without an agreement we don’t have any of this insight into Iran’s nuclear program," the official said. "With an agreement, we have a significant amount of eyes into Iran’s program and a much better capacity to detect any potential covert effort to break out and pursue a weapon."
The official sought to downplay expectations of a deal being reached at next week's talks in Montreux, Switzerland.
"Obviously, the negotiations have advanced substantially, gaps have narrowed, but we really don’t know if we will be able to close a good deal because ultimately that’s going to depend on Iranian decisions" about accepting such a regime, he said.
The sides are working toward a deadline of the end of March, by which US officials have said they want the framework of an agreement in place. A full, technical deal would then be spelled out by June 30.
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